Back in 2000, Pokey Reese was one of the most sought-after middle infielders in the game of baseball. He was the Gold Glove-winning second baseman for the Cincinnati Reds and he was coming off a season in which he had just hit a career-high .285 and stole 38 bases. It was his third year in the big leagues and he was also beginning to produce some pop in his swing, reaching the ten-homer mark for the first time. But it was his glove work that set him apart. Reese could get to balls and make throws few others could.
No doubt, his value was at its peak, which is why the Reds offered the then 26-year-old native of Columbia, SC a four year deal worth about $21 million after the 2000 season. Reese turned it down, a certain indication to Cincinnati’s front office that he was planning on testing free agency. A rumor than began to circulate that Reese wanted $10 million a year, an intimidating number for most teams to swallow at the time, especially for a middle infielder. That number became even more intimidating, when Reese’s offense began to disappear.
His agent denied that he nor his client ever made the demand and Reese himself blamed Reds’ GM Jim Bowden for planting the story but Bowden also denied doing it. Wherever it came from, that rumor and Reese’s .224 batting average in 2001 did huge damage to his acquisition appeal around the league. That’s why the Reds could only get a couple of pretty ordinary pitching prospects for the two-time Gold Glove winner when they traded him to The Rockies in December of 2001. Colorado didn’t even actually want Reese either. A day later they traded him to the Red Sox for Scott Hatteberg. Two days later, Boston released him and he ended up signing with the Pirates.
He did pretty well his first year in Pittsburgh, horribly his second and then just before Christmas in 2003, he was again acquired by the Red Sox, this time as a free agent. At the time, Boston’s front office and the team’s star shortstop, Nomar Garciaparra were locked in one of the bitterest contract feuds in franchise history. When Boston traded the disgruntled Garciaparra to the Cubs during the ’04 regular season, it was Reese who took his place for a while. By the end of that year however, he had lost the job to Orlando Cabrera, and had become the team’s utility infielder. He was the second baseman who cleanly fielded the ground ball off of Ruben Sierra’s bat that ended Game Seven of the dramatic 2004 ALCS versus the Yankees. Then, after winning his first and only World Series Ring, reese never again played in a big league ball game.
It really was remarkable that Reese made it as far as he did in baseball. His childhood back in South Carolina had been one of abject poverty. He then fathered two children out of wedlock and before he reached the big leagues, his daughter was killed in a car accident and his young son witnessed the bloody murder of his own mother.
After winning 97 games as Red Sox manager in 1977 and 98 more the following season, Don Zimmer had nothing to show for it. Both those Boston teams lost AL East Division races to the Yankees, Zimmer’s 1979 Boston ball club had a ten game lead over the Bronx Bombers by mid August and would finally finish ahead of their hated rivals. The problem was however, that the Baltimore Orioles had a four game lead over Popeye’s ball club at the time and Red Sox starting second baseman, Jerry Remy and his talented backup, Jack Brohamer were both out of action with injuries.
Boston GM Haywood Sullivan made a deal with the Cubs to acquire veteran second baseman Ted Sizemore to fill the gigantic hole on the right side of his team’s infield. Sizemore, was born in Alabama but grew up in Detroit. He had been a catcher for the University of Michigan, who had been drafted by the Dodgers in 1966 and converted into a second baseman. He made his big league debut with Los Angeles in 1969 and captured the NL Rookie of the Year Award that season.
Two years later, when the Dodgers were looking for a home run hitter to add to their lineup, they traded Sizemore to the Cardinals for Dick Allen. He was a mainstay in the middle of St. Louis’s infield for the next five seasons. The Dodgers reacquired him in 1976 to fill in for an injured Davey Lopes. He then was traded to the Phillies before landing in Chicago with the Cubs.
He had a terrific debut in Fenway, going 3-3 against the White Sox and driving in 2 runs in a Boston victory. He also filled in admirably at second and hit a productive .261 down the stretch. He was certainly not the reason Boston ended up slumping as a team and finishing 11 games behind a very good Orioles squad. Invited back to the Red Sox 1980 spring training camp, Sizemore made the Opening Day roster as the team’s utility infielder, but ended up losing that job to a young rookie named Dave Stapleton and was released.
He was 35 years-old at the time and decided to retire as a player. He ended up going to work for Rawlings and became an executive with that company.
Before the A’s moved to Oakland they played in Kansas City and back in the 1950’s, their organization made so many trades with the Yankees the joke was that Kansas City was New York’s best farm team. Well, before the team moved to Kansas City, the franchise’s home base was Philadelphia and back in the 1930’s, it was the Red Sox and their new owner Tom Yawkey, who were accused of using the A’s as their top farm team as well.
Lefty Grove, Jimmy Foxx, Max Bishop, Doc Cramer and Pinky Higgins were the biggest names to board the train from “the City of Brotherly Love” to Fenway back then, Today’s Beantown Baseball Birthday Celebrant was also a key acquisition. Eric McNair packed a whole bunch of talent in his rather tiny 5’8″ 160 pound frame. Born and raised in Meridian, Mississippi, he had talked his way into the batboy’s job with a D-League farm team that used to play in his hometown and when he was 19-years-old, that team offered him a contract. The kid was a right-hand hitting infielder with good speed and surprising power considering his size.
He made his big league debut with Connie Mack’s A’s a year later and by 1932, he was on his way to establishing himself as one of baseball’s better second basemen. That season he led the AL in doubles with 47, while belting 18 home runs and driving in 95, which were all career highs. In 1935, the Red Sox acquired McNair as part of the same deal in which they got Cramer. McNair started at short during his first season in Boston and played really well, averaging .285 and driving in 74 runs. That offseason, however, tragedy struck his personal life when his wife died from complications suffered during the birth of the couple’s first child. Her death caused McNair to battle bouts of depression for the rest of his own life.
Amazingly, McNair somehow put together his best season as a Red Sox after his devastating personal loss. Boston switched him over to second base in 1937 and he averaged .292 with 12 home runs and 76 RBIs. The following year, he decided to hold out for a better salary. His timing couldn’t have been worse. Boston had brought this young second baseman from California to their 1938 spring training camp. The kid’s name was Bobby Doerr. Though McNair ended up signing his contract, he lost his starting job to Doerr and then injured his knee. It turned out to be the worst year of his big league career and his final season as a Red Sox.
That December, Boston traded him to the White Sox, who at the time were being managed by McNair’s old double play partner with the A’s, Jimmy Dykes. Dykes started McNair at third base and he responded with a great year at the plate, averaging a career-high .324 and driving in 82 runs. That ’39 season turned out to be his last hurrah as a big leaguer. Never a great defensive player, McNair lost his starting job with Chicago the following year and became a part-time player. His last big league season was 1942. Seven years later he died from a heart attack at the age of just 39.
The west coast was very kind to the great Red Sox teams of the 1940’s. The region produced a legendary Boston version of a “Core Four” with Ted Williams, Johnny Pesky, Dom DiMaggio and today’s Birthday Celebrant all coming east as young men and making Fenway their summer workplace.
If you research Doerr’s life and career, the most common description you encounter is not Hall-of-Famer, great hitter or outstanding second baseman, though he was certainly all of those. Nope, to those that played with him and against him and to the hundreds of young players he mentored as a long-time hitting and fielding instructor, Bobby Doerr is a true gentleman and one of the nicest guys you’d ever want to meet.
That doesn’t mean Doerr wasn’t tough or afraid to lead. In the late David Halberstam’s book “Teammates,” which focuses on the strong bond of friendship between these four great Red Sox legends, the other three Boston stars all insisted that Doerr was the glue that held those great pre- and post- WWII Boston teams together. And Doerr was the only Red Sox willing to tell Williams to cool it, whenever the Splendid Splinter got into one of his patented surly moods.
Born in Los Angeles in 1918, Doerr was a teenage sensation with the Hollywood Stars in the Pacific Coast League. He joined the Red Sox in 1937, at the age of 19. By September of that first season, he had taken over as Boston’s staring second baseman from a very good player named Eric McNair. Doerr remained at that position for 14 of the next 15 big league seasons with the only interruption being the one year (1945) he spent in military service during the war.
A right-handed hitter, he could be counted on like clockwork to smack close to 20 homers and drive in between 95-to-110 runs. His career average was .288 and he made nine All Star teams. During his only postseason appearance in the 1946 World Series, Doerr led all Red Sox regulars with a .409 batting average. His glove work was near flawless and if there were Gold Gloves awarded back then, he’d own at least a dozen. But it all ended abruptly.
While bending over to field a slow-hit grounder during the second half of the 1951 season, Doerr felt like he pulled something in his back. He kept playing but weeks later, the pain had gotten so bad he couldn’t get out of bed. Doctors couldn’t figure out what was causing the pain and told him the only hope was a complicated operation that might actually end up making his back worse. Just 33-years-old at the time, Doerr retired instead. You’ll still find his name among the top ten all-time franchise leaders in just about every offensive and defensive category.
He settled in Oregon with his wife and son and tried ranching. He gave that up to become a roving instructor and scout for the Red Sox. He missed the Halberstam-chronicled road-trip with DiMaggio and Pesky to visit a dying Williams because he didn’t want to leave his wife, who had multiple sclerosis and had suffered two strokes. Today he turns 96-years of age. His wife passed away in 2003 and Doerr remains in Oregon, still the perfect gentleman and still one of the nicest guys you’d ever want to meet.
The reporters covering Red Sox baseball back in the late forties and early fifties used to call it “the Goodman problem.” Each year, when Boston opened its spring training camp in Sarasota, Florida, whoever happened to be managing the club that year was bound to be asked the same question during his first interview with the press, “Where you going to play Billy Goodman this season?” As one Boston manager after another found out, it was a great problem to have.
The son of a North Carolina farmer, Goodman was a three-sport star in high school and a veteran of WWII. After he put together two great seasons in the Southern Assocoiation, the Red Sox signed him for $75,000, which was a huge amount of money back in 1947. He made the parent club’s roster permanently by 1948 and began a 15-year big league career as one of the most versatile position players of all-time. During his decade as a Red Sox he started at every position except pitcher and catcher and played them all well.
But Goodman’s calling card was his crafty work at the plate. He had little power but he could hit the ball hard and he rarely struck out. In 1950 he won the AL batting title with a .354 average, the only player in big league history to do so without playing as many as 50 games in any one position on the field. Boston had an all-star-laden lineup back then and Goodman was used to back up most of them. During his days at Fenway he filled in long stretches for Ted Williams, Johnny Pesky, Bobby Doerr and Walt Dropo.
When he was traded to the Orioles for pitcher Mike Fornieles in June of 1957, Goodman’s career lifetime average as a Red Sox was .306 and his on-base-percentage for Boston was a robust .386, good enough to place him 13th and 14th respectively on the franchise’s all-time leader lists in those two categories. He continued playing until 1962 and then became a long-time coach and instructor at the minor league level. He died from skin cancer at the age of 58 in 1984.